What lies in store for Taliban chief Mullah Baradar?

2010 Karachi - Mullah Baradar was arrested in the southern city of Karachi
Image caption Mullah Baradar was arrested in the southern city of Karachi

Pakistan has freed its highest-ranking Taliban captive, Mullah Baradar - but where does he go from here?

The answer lies in the folds of a multi-dimensional conflict in which the aims of various parties are often at odds with each other.

At one level, an increasingly aggressive insurgency rages across Afghanistan, preventing the government in Kabul and its international allies from stabilising the country.

At another, much of the insurgency appears to stem from another conflict further east - the rivalry between India and Pakistan.

All this is happening at a time when Afghan President Hamid Karzai is nearing the end of his term, and Nato's deadline for a drawdown is approaching.

'Reconcilable' elements

Meanwhile, Pakistan is known to have invested heavily to ensure that Afghanistan does not revert to its traditional anti-Pakistan, pro-India role of the pre-1980s, when Pakistan had to live under the threat of a two-front war.

This policy led to the creation of the Taliban movement in the early 1990s, and enabled them to regroup as a guerrilla force in the post-9/11 era after they found sanctuary in Pakistan.

Image caption Afghan President Hamid Karzai is nearing the end of his term

Pakistanis are likely to continue with this policy unless India and Pakistan resolve their mutual conflict over Kashmir - a highly unlikely scenario.

Against this backdrop, the relentless focus on Mullah Baradar's release points to an underlying hope that he could become a catalyst in bringing all the warring parties to a grand resolution.

But is this hope realistic?

When Pakistanis arrested Mullah Baradar in February 2010, some Afghan officials claimed the move was meant to sabotage a peace process he had initiated with the Karzai government behind the Pakistanis' backs.

The Pakistanis, for their part, never made clear why they had arrested him, or some 50-odd other prominent Taliban leaders, while many others are free and actively engaging in the insurgency.

Months after his arrest, President Karzai appointed a 74-member High Peace Council to negotiate peace with the "reconcilable" elements within the Taliban.

Since then, Pakistan has been under constant pressure from Kabul to release Mullah Baradar and other former Taliban officials in its custody to help in the peace process.

Changed landscape

Now that he is free, how quickly can he take to the stage? Not so soon, says Mohammad Hussain Haqyar, a Kabul-based analyst and former Taliban insider.

"He will discover that the political and military landscape has changed from when he left off three-and-a-half years ago.

"He will need to rest up, to update his knowledge of the latest military formations and patterns of deployment, and to assess the new thinking among the relevant players, including Taliban leadership," he said.

If left to himself, Mullah Baradar will stay in Pakistan and re-join the insurgency, but if his release is conditional, then it is anybody's guess, Mr Haqyar says.

If the terms of his release require that he deliver on the peace process, then the question is whether he will work for peace from within the Taliban or will he take an independent course?

"If he leaves Taliban, he will lose the clout and the respect he has within the movement. If he goes back to Taliban, he will be just an individual without any high political or military office," says Tahir Khan, an Islamabad-based journalist who covers Taliban affairs.

"In either case, he will not have the clout to influence the decisions of Taliban leadership."

If that is the case, then why has the Afghan government been so insistent on his release?

One possible explanation is that Kabul would favour conditions that minimise Pakistani control over Taliban insurgents.

Many believe their release and possible move abroad would mean that Taliban prisoners are no longer held hostage by Pakistan, and therefore free to devise a peace formula that would conform more closely to the interests of Afghanistan.

Image caption The Afghan Taliban, which now has an office in Qatar, has changed over the years

Where to?

It is not clear which country Mullah Baradar will ultimately end up in, but his family has already moved from Karachi to Dubai. Pakistani officials say he will set up base either in Turkey or Saudi Arabia.

If true, this would be a welcome move from the point of view of the Afghan government, which ran into trouble with the Qatari government earlier this year because it thought it had been bypassed in a Taliban decision to open an office there.

When the Americans attacked Afghanistan in 2011, many senior Taliban leaders - including Mullah Baradar - simply went home and stayed there.

Mullah Baradar and others crossed into Pakistan a year later, when the insurgency gathered momentum. Others either moved closer to the Karzai government, or stayed on the sidelines.

Analysts believe Kabul hopes that Mullah Baradar would be able to draw these leaders into talks that can lead to wider consensus among the Taliban movement, the Afghan government and the Western powers represented by Nato.

The deputy head of the High Peace Council, Abdul Hakim Mujahid, also stresses sincerity from Pakistan.

"If Taliban, Pakistan and Afghanistan show sincerity in talks, people like [Mullah Baradar] can hugely benefit not only the process of reconciliation in Afghanistan, but also Pakistan-Afghanistan relations," he says.

But if any of the two countries lack sincerity, or if the Taliban leadership declines to support Mullah Baradar, "then it is unwise to expect one or two individuals to perform a miracle", he says.

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